Poor Court Interpreting Jeopardizes Constitutional Rights

Washington monument in Washington DC

Professional interpretation matters. That’s especially true in fields such as legal where a misinterpretation can result in a false accusation, wrongly send someone to jail or at the very least cause a mistrial wasting time and money for all those involved. There are countless examples of either an untrained court interpreter being used or an interpreter is never provided at all.

Interpreting Gone Wrong

In a news article published by PBS Newshour Patricia Michelsen-King, a court interpreter, recalls a situation she witnessed in a courtroom before she began her work with the court as an interpreter. A Spanish speaking defendant was in court for a traffic violation which his interpreter translated as “violación” which translates to “rape”, not “violation”. The defendant became extremely distressed at the thought of being accused of rape.

Interpretation Called Poor and Substandard

The court interpreter seems to speak perfect Hindi. The unsuspecting might think that would be enough to excel as a court interpreter. But thestar.com reported this particular Hindi interpreter couldn’t keep up fast enough to accurately perform comprehensive simultaneous interpretation.

Canadian Supreme Court Justice Casey Hill declared a mistrial in the sexual assault case. The judge called the quality of the Hindi interpretation poor and substandard.  An expert from the United States, Umesh Passi (member, New York State Bar Association), reviewed audiotapes from the cross-examination.  Umesh found the court interpreter “did not interpret verbatim, summarized most of the proceedings and was not able to interpret everything that was said on the record.”

Denial of Interpreting Services Sends Deaf Man to Jail

In February 2014, Abreham Zemedagegehu was arrested while trying to spend a night at an airport. He was arrested in connection to a false accusation that he had stolen an iPad. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says the sheriff’s office violated the American With Disabilities Act by failing to provide sign language interpreting services. Abreham, an immigrant from Ethiopia, wound up spending 40 nights in jail confused as to what was going on after repeatedly asking for interpreter services. In November 2016, the U.S. Justice Department announced a settlement for Abreham to receive $250,000 and changes are underway at the facilities he was jailed in.

Mistranslations Far Too Common

Unfortunately, situations such as this are far too common across the country. While Federal courts have extremely strict regulations and rigorous tests for interpreters, many states don’t use tested and qualified interpreters. This leaves many defendants clueless as to how to navigate the legal system, jeopardizing their constitutional rights. The American Bar Association published a resolution four years ago urging courts at all levels to raise their standards for court interpreter services. They state “there is ample experience and anecdotal evidence to substantiate that many [people with limited English proficiency] regularly come before the courts and are unable, without language access services, to protect or enforce their legal rights, with devastating consequences to life, liberty, family, and property interests”.

Many states struggle with sourcing qualified interpreters which they state as the reason for using anyone nearby that claims to be bilingual. Many bilingual people think they can interpret since they have done it for family members, but often they lack the formal education in that language and most do not possess the necessary technical vocabulary necessary in a court room. It’s clear how much damage the misinterpretation of just one word can cause.

Leading by Example

Image SourceSupreme Court Justice Roberts

The good news is that many states are working towards improving their court interpreter services. They are recruiting new interpreters, instituting a testing requirement, and often sign on professional language services companies to help them fill the gap.

There was also the wonderful news article in April 2016 on Supreme Court Justice, John Roberts, who said, “Your motion is granted” in Sign Language. It may not seem like much to the common person, but to the millions of Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, it means a whole lot. This includes the 12 deaf or hard of hearing lawyers who were sworn into the Supreme Court. How wonderful indeed to see someone in a position of power going the extra mile to accommodate and embrace the large portion of the population who often struggle with communication.


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